Language and Metaphors for a New Cosmology
First, thank you for all you do and for helping make YES! a reality. Positive visions can be hard to find, and as you point out, opposition to the negative can only go so far. Eventually, ‘standing against’ must become ‘standing for,’ and if the stance is carefully chosen, it will not only send a message of resistance, but will, by default, lead toward a healthier alternative.
I had the idea of a healthier alternative in mind when I read the opening question in your thought-provoking essay “Religion, Science and Spirit: A Sacred Story for Our Time”: “Is it possible that the human future turns on our embrace of a new sacred story that gives us a reason to care and with which a majority of people may already align, yet has neither institutional support nor a place in the public conversation?” I believe the answer is yes!, because I found my way to such a story despite being a child of a conservative, Methodist, suburban, military family, brought up in a conceptual atmosphere about as far removed from that story as seems possible.
My personal turning began when I was 12 years old, and came back to the U.S. after living for two years in outback Australia. To my dismay, I found that reverse culture shock had rendered my home alien. The natural world became my refuge and gave me a place to regain my footing. From there, I began to use the contrasting world view I was gaining to examine the previously unquestioned/unquestionable story of myself. I found that story profoundly inconsistent with the reality of experience and wanted to replace it with something that worked. Imagining the replacement has been my project ever since, a project informed by copious readings as well as long hours of forest-roaming and working as an owl researcher, vegetation surveyor, archaeological field crew leader, and writer in the central Oregon Cascades, where I live with my wife and son.
What I have found over the course of twenty plus years engaged in this project, in this land of old growth, phantom orchids and obsidian artifacts, has been a way to not only feel, but to know, that the notion of human separation from the rest of the natural order is illusion. One word in particular helps make it clear, and, at the same time, explodes the old illusory myth.
My good friend, intellectual collaborator and neighbor Gary Gripp has already shared the word in the online comment field : holon (and its variants, Holarchy, and most importantly, holonomy). A holonomous sense of self (as opposed to an autonomous sense of self) allows me to recognize my ‘self’ as distinct, but not singular nor separate from the greater Whole. This sense of holonic self-identity (like watersheds) in turn reveals a moral imperative inherent in the very fabric of existence. Gary and I call it the Law of Holonic Reciprocity (which recognizes that each level of a Holarchy must be mutually supportive in just the way you describe in your essay when you invoke the analogy of cells in the body serving not only their own health, but the health of the organs they compose as well as the body as a whole).
The Law of Holonic Reciprocity applies at all levels of Being and might be thought of as the moral equivalent of the Law of Gravity. Civilization’s apparent success at violating this moral Law derives from its exploitation of the moral equivalent of the Law of Aerodynamics, the Law by which thrust can be used to generate air flow over a curved wing so as to create lift. The resultant attainment of flight gives the illusion of opposition to the Law of Gravity, but actually represents a very drawn-out controlled fall that can only go on as long as there is fuel for the engines that generate the thrust. The moral Law of Aerodynamics that civilization has used to make its ten-thousand-year-long controlled fall might be called the Law of Cause and Deferrable Effect (buy — i.e. steal, pillage, plunder, mine — now, pay later).
Well, later has arrived. And aerodynamics will not avail our cultural plane much longer as the fuel necessary for propulsion and thus lift is running out (along just about every other source of planetary resilience — peak everything). The question is, will we attempt a controlled landing or climb on until the engines stop?
My preferred option of a controlled return to earth compels us to acknowledge that the time has come to replace the moral/morality-denying guides of the respective religious/scientific cosmologies with new, more grounded, inclusive and immediate guides reflective of an integrative cosmology. For instance, the Golden Rule might better serve the emerging sacred story if transformed into the Holonic Golden Rule: “What you do unto others you are also doing unto yourself (and vice versa).” This modified rule honors the Law by restoring to consciousness the reality of consequences that the standard Golden Rule overlooks. And responsiveness to consequences (responsibility) will be vital to any viable sacred story.
I’m sharing this out of a sense of that responsibility, and because I feel that without a word like holon and its variants, the ability to conceptualize, let alone verbalize, the profound and essential shift in ideas it represents is far more difficult. In fact, I think that’s one reason why vital ideas like “we are all One” have remained largely outside public conversation. The mystical language through which attempted articulation has traditionally been channeled is too vague. Holonic language offers clarity, as well as intellectual accessibility to what has typically been a more intuitive awareness (it can even be confirmed quantitatively, through fractal geometry, which, as I see it, is the mathematical expression of holonic reality). In these hyper-intellectual times, a bridge between mind and heart has never been more necessary. Holonic language could be such a bridge, giving the heart a voice capable of being heard, and found credible, by the civilized mind.
This certainly proved true for me. Mystical notions like “we are all One,” while intriguing, never resonated much (especially after years of e-ducation out of a state of direct experiential humanness and into alphabetical abstraction, religious human exceptionalism and reductionist scientific methodology). I simply could not deny my individuality in relation to say, a tree. We were definitely not One.
Then I immersed in the Cascades — twelve years, a solitary human hunting owls in old growth, eight years giving my attention to my botanical kin, six years seeking traces of the people I call my landcestors (predecessors in place). Every day, informed through the unique lens offered by each focus, I found the idea of holonomy manifested all around me, in leaves, trees, owls, forest and soil, in seeps, meadows, camas, creeks, rivers and oceans, in my own atomic, molecular, cellular, bodily physiology, distinct but inseparable from all the other features of the land, interwoven into Nature’s elegant, abounding, autopoietic Order. This awareness of holonomy (the word itself came much later) cast Oneness in a different light and showed me that my individuality is but a facet of a much broader self-sense that includes everything. This understanding amplified the ethical significance of my every action by orders of magnitude. If the tree is a part of my meaningful self (and vice versa), and we’re both parts of the greater bodies of the forest, earth, and cosmos, then the felling of the tree is a wound to the self at all these levels, and so must be pondered and undertaken with great care. In other words, trees and humans are but two of countless expressions of the Holarchy, the One true Self (I resist calling this Self ‘God’ because the term Holarchy is far clearer, less prone to anthropomorphism, more descriptive and, most importantly, is inherently all-inclusive).
In the book, Moral Ground, Jonathan F.P. Rose writes: “The root cause of the ecological issues we face arises from our definition of self. The ecological self is the ecology of the Earth. The perceptual boundary between us and the larger ecology is a mental construct. We need to transform this mental construct and function from the view of the whole, rather than the parts.” Actually, I think we must function from a view that accepts the simultaneous validity of both the whole and the parts as inseparable aspects of each other — the greater Self. In short, a holonomous view.
So, in closing, I would ask my own question: Could a holonomous self-awareness be, not just a personal, but a cultural route to a care-fostering story of the kind on which you argue the human future will turn? For this human, the answer is yes. For Gary, as well. And likely for many others, possibly even a majority, but the lack of the word (or its equivalent) in common currency may be another reason most of us remain isolates, each trying to express our felt Distinctive-Oneness in our own individual voices, unaware of the common language necessary to touch kindred hearts — to find resonation within the greater spectrum of shared Selfhood. In other words, for a new cosmology to emerge into maturity, new conceptual frames composed of consistent terminology and metaphors will be needed. Employing the terminology and metaphors of the old cosmologies — for instance, creation (with its allopoietic implications), unification (an ever popular clarion call for conquest), transcendence and foundation andhigher levels of consciousness (all derived from the assumption of hierarchy), notions of life forms being instruments and hard-wired by evolution (too mechanistic) — will not suffice. Using these terms for the sake of popular accessibility disables the message and leaves both reader and writer firmly ensnared in the very cosmologies they’re trying to escape. Why? The sacred story we need to inhabit is one we already know in our holonomous hearts. We’ve always been an integral part of it. What is actually needed is a language capable of voicing the story in a way that makes that fact accessible to our alienated minds as well. Then, aligned, the two can work together, in concert, as One.
Yours in Holonomy,
Over the last 23 years, Tim Fox has worked as an owl researcher, vegetation surveyor, archaeological field crew leader and writer in the fir and hemlock forests of the central Oregon Cascades, where he lives with his wife and son. His work has been published in Orion Magazine and the chronicle of his 2009 writer’s residency at the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest is posted in the on-line publication, The Forest Log, which can be accessed through the H.J. Andrews website as well as the website for “The Spring Creek Project for Nature, Ideas and the Written Word.” He also posts on the Dark Mountain Network blog.
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